An Author's Complicated Relationship with Self-Promotion

This is the second of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.


Somewhere toward the beginning of a career as a published author, many of us are asked by our new publicist how comfortable we are on social media and whether we have, or would be interested in, an active account on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other big social sites out there. It's a pretty important question, because (and this is something that won't necessarily be spelled out for you right off the bat), an author's presence on the internet may end up being the majority of the public marketing for his or her books.

Finding out the size of the marketing budget (hint: it's probably not much) for your books is one of those big wake-up calls as a new author. Not that they'll tell you in so many words—you'll just get the gist of it eventually. But don't worry! No one else out there (except the million-dollar advance people) is getting much more. Publishers don't have the cash these days to buoy the mid-list authors, and our publicity teams have very strict instructions on where to put the little money they have. So it's sink or swim to everyone who just found themselves in the deep end.

This means that you can either let the book go on its own merit and trust to luck that it'll take off, or you can wade into the internet looking for soap boxes from which to tout your new novel.

Let's talk about the first problem with self-promotion: most of us find it distasteful. From the reader's perspective it feels like just one more person trying to sell us something and seriously aren't we already being bombarded by that on a daily basis? It's annoying. Many readers have the misconception that authors tend to be wealthy people (they're not), which makes being sold to by them even more annoying. There are also a number of readers who think that writing is art and that all artists should do art for art-sake and not for money, which is an elitist, idiotic opinion I won't say any more about because it makes my ears bleed.

It's easy to forget that self-promo is just as awkward, or even more so, for the author themselves. You, the reader, will dismiss a tweet from an author with an Amazon buy link in it in as little time as it takes for the signal to travel from your eyes to your brain. But that author just spent fifteen minutes composing and rewriting that tweet, wringing their hands over the idea that someone will be annoyed by it and unfollow. "Am I being too much of a bother with this self-promotion" is a genuine anxiety-causing question for many authors.

I wrestled with the self-doubt over self-promotion for a very long time (and I still do sometimes) after I got involved with social media as an author. I worried that I'd lose followers each time I mentioned my books. The anxiety didn't stop until I realized that https://twitter.com/BrianTMcClellan is my area, filled with content created by me. If someone wants to follow me to see recipes or pictures of castles or my cat or whatever else I put up there, the cost of that free content is to see me tweet about my books. If they don't like it, then they don't have to follow me. We go our separate ways and nobody's feelings are hurt! This applies to all social media to a greater or lesser extent than Twitter, but you get the idea.

Once authors get over the psychological aspect of self-promotion they have to move on to the next big problem: where do they focus their time? There are a slew of free things an author can do to promote themselves; guest blogs, social media, blogger interviews, being active on large forums, etc.

For Promise of Blood, I said yes to just about everything I could get my hands on, big and small. I must have done a dozen interviews, as many guest blog posts, an AMA on Reddit, and a number of other things that I've since forgotten, all of which added up to the equivalent of a full work week (or more), not including all the time I spent on social media to promote all said projects. That's a lot of hours! So was any of it effective?

I have no idea. Nobody knows! I'll let that sink in for a moment. Terrifying, right?

Super terrifying.

All that work was exhausting and burnt me out so much that for Crimson Campaign I did only a fraction the amount of online self-promotion. Crimson Campaign had a great launch, so again, I had no idea whether it could have been better with more work or would have been worse without the little I did.

There's a theory with all this internet promotion that surely it must do some good because everyone does it. I'm sure you can see the flaw in that logic pretty quick. There's another theory that surely it must do some good because, from a marketing perspective, getting your product in front of new eyes is the only way to actually sell it and, despite the glut of content and over-saturation of advertising on the internet, there's always someone who will pay attention and those are the people who will pick up your book on the whim and then tell their friends and maybe one day, half a dozen new novels from now, you'll hit the New York Times List and yay!

That last sentence made me tired just writing it. But it's the theory that publicists and many authors hold to because it's the best they have.

Autumn Republic, my latest book, came out just last week which is why all this stuff is on my mind. I decided to spend an amount of time on promotion somewhere between what I spent on Promise of Blood and what I spent on Crimson Campaign. I set up guest posts on Tor.com, Terribleminds, and Whatever, three websites that I knew get a ton of hits every day. I set up an interview with Sword and Laser because they're awesome people and they have a huge audience. I had to ignore many of the smaller blogs and podcasts I've done before because frankly, I didn't have the time or mental or emotional energy to do anything that would not pay for itself in sales.

Not that I know if those posts and interviews did pay for themselves in sales. All I can do is examine the data: how many readers do they get each day? How many hits did the buy links at the bottom of the page get? How many comments did my post receive? Were those posts positive or negative? Did the posts get much traction on social media? And even if I know the exact answers to all these questions, I won't know whether the effort sold any books. I can only hope that the one commenter who said they rushed out to buy my book was not, in fact, a bold-faced liar, but instead representative of a hundred other people who did not comment.

If this is all sounding incredibly uncertain and maybe a tad depressing that just means you've been paying attention.

So I guess the next question is, for many authors, should they even bother? Before reading the previous two pages of information I'm sure most of you business-minded folks would have said "of course!" Now that you have read it, there's probably at least a niggle of doubt.

As far as social media is concerned, I don't think an author should do it unless they enjoy it. For one, because as this recent article from The Atlantic tells us, Twitter may be essentially useless for driving traffic. But also because people, even over the internet, will be able to tell if someone is just there to sell them something and for no other reason. I hang out on Twitter because I enjoy bantering with my author friends and musing about cake. Because I'm already there, I post buy links and updated information about my authorial activity. Same goes for Facebook (though I use it mostly to keep track of family and real-life friends). I've gotten to have a reasonable presence over on /r/fantasy and I do that because I genuinely enjoy the community and have fun commenting from time to time. I do consider taking the extra time to respond to and interact with fans on all these platforms an extension of my work week, but again, if I wasn't finding it all rewarding and enjoyable I would stop.

As a side note, I've found on social media and in forum communities that being a generally likeable, self-aware person can sometimes be the quickest way to sell a book. I like to tell new authors that people don't mind if you haunt these corners of the web with the intent on selling books as long as you don't look like you're trying to sell books.

It's harder to say whether or not an author should bother with all the guest posts and the interviews. Some authors can write a guest post in an hour, while others take days, and with few exceptions no one is paying us directly for that content. I have no doubt that I've expanded my audience by getting people to take the chance on books because of my guest posts, but I have no idea how many times that's happened. Maybe one or two of you that reads this post will think all of this is very reasonable and decide to check out the Powder Mage Trilogy.

Or maybe you won't.

Regardless of all of this, self-promotion has become an integral part of the average author's work week. Mileage varies depending on the author and their ambition (do you want to chase down an interview in a local paper or NPR show?), but from the mega-bestsellers like GRRM going on late night TV all the way down to the brand new, small-advance author tweeting about their book to forty-six followers, it is an exercise that most authors get caught up in to some degree or another. And they have to decide exactly how much mental, emotional, and physical effort they put into it without ever knowing what they'll get back.